Commercial Real Estate Predictions for 2021

The year 2021 will be when commercial real estate in all its many forms begins to markedly recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. But this recovery will vary by segment and geography, and it all depends on the recovery from the pandemic itself.

Short term, the worsening pandemic may impinge on any recovery while we wait for vaccines to become widely available and be effective enough to allow businesses to open without restrictions and jobs to return or be created.

Government stimulus will play a big part in all this, too, as the survival of small businesses — and many not-so-small ones — increasingly appears to depend on whether they can get bailouts to carry them through to a recovery of their own.

Even those doing well have people working from home by the millions, and the impact of that on the office space business will greatly depend on what kind of new normal emerges as 2021 rolls on into 2022 and beyond.

Segmented CRE will attract new investment in multiple sectors

All these businesses and their rent flow are critical to CRE investors and property managers. That’s particularly true for retail and hospitality, both of which heavily depend on Americans’ ability to spend and travel.

While some mall real estate investment trusts (REITs) have gone bankrupt, other retail space operators are doing much better, especially those whose tenants lean heavily toward essential businesses like big-box retailers — e.g., Home Depot (NYSE: HD), Walmart (NYSE: WMT), and Target (NYSE: TGT) — as well as pharmacies, healthcare, and groceries.

Meanwhile, some other segments are doing well, especially the industrial vertical, particularly in sectors like warehousing, life sciences, and data centers.

Watch for increased investment in all those in 2021. One of those, warehousing, could present opportunities for deals for smaller investments. In fact, facilities that can handle last-mile logistics are growing in importance as e-commerce surges.

Time for an office visit…

And, for longer-term growth, consider well-run office REITs or, if you’re in the business yourself, watch for office space deals as multiple factors contribute to a potential resurgence there beginning in late 2021.

Two expert opinions on that come from recent outlook reports by CBRE (NYSE: CBRE) and MetLife Investment Management. The CBRE report says the second half of the year will be when this tale will unfold: “Only when workers can safely return to the office will the long-term effect of remote working levels become clear.”

But, the report says, don’t underestimate the power of teamwork, easy collaboration, and face-to-face business interaction to draw businesses back to the in-person model.

“Investment demand for office assets might surprise on the upside, not least because an expected period of dollar weakness will make U.S. assets very attractive to foreign investors,” the report says.

The MetLife report, meanwhile, says that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it expects central business district office submarkets to outperform their suburban counterparts, calling the swing toward the latter “short-term.”

And, that report says, “Some of the markets likely to experience the worst impacts in the near term (2021 and 2022) may also have the strongest demand over the next decade, potentially creating a unique buying opportunity in coming quarters.”

For example, Boston is a good market to consider because of its heavy concentration of life sciences and similar businesses that don’t lend themselves to remote work. And markets the MetLife researchers see as prime to recover from work-from-home hits now and see strong new demand later include San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, San Jose, and Washington, D.C.

But don’t take just my word for it…

Here’s how Gay Cororaton, a senior economist at the National Association of Realtors (NAR), sees the year ahead in CRE:

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